Tony Grift  soil testing technology.

University of Illinois professor Tony Grift introduces farmers to state-of-the-art soil testing technology.

SAVOY, Ill. — As harvest season approaches, farmers took a break from preparation to see what researchers are working on and listen to futuristic ideas of what farming might look like one day at Agronomy Day at the University of Illinois research plots Aug. 16.

Speakers talked about how drones can play a big role in farming. Farmers saw new ways to control weeds with a seed destroyer machine that follows the combine, and they checked out cutting edge soil-testing equipment with On-The-Implement-Intelligent-Soil Sensing (OTIISS).

Tony Grift, associate professor of agriculture and biological engineering, introduced farmers to OTIISS, specifically the Veris U3 machine for soil testing. He said he also sees more opportunities for farmers coming from acoustic research that could help with issues of compaction in the future.

Chris Harbourt, a University of Illinois teacher and entrepreneur, brainstormed some ideas of how farming might be different in five or 10 years. He is a managing partner of Hatch Ag Group, based at the university’s research park, that invests in cutting edge ag technology, and he was a founder of Agrible, an agriculture information and service company based in Champaign, Ill.

He sees farmers looking up — using a combination of help from drones, manned aircraft and satellites. Together, the detailed imagery of drones, 5,000-foot images from planes and the overview of satellite imagery will give farmers access to a new level of aerial agronomy. Harbourt calls the sky-centric items “enabling technology.”

Drones are already helping farmers find answers, said Dennis Bowman, an Extension educator. He showed photos of a field in Vermilion County that had patchy corn coming up in May. In talking with the farmer, they determined that the corn was planted too soon after the application of anhydrous. This was a reminder to wait the recommended week to 10 days, he said.

He told farmers that a grant proposal focusing on studying corn disease with the use of ground and aerial robots at the University of Illinois has not been funded this round, but it is something the team will apply for again.

“We think we have the technology,” he said of the project.

Harbourt can picture farmers using a fleet of small drones. He gave the example of a Yamaha helicopter-like drone used for spraying in Japan. It costs about $200,000. However, smaller $15,000 drones have been introduced. Farmers could buy a small fleet of the specialized drones that could displace the larger, more expensive equipment.

While such drone crop work is not allowed in the U.S. today, there is potential for such options with smaller drones in the future, he said.

This is where he sees the potential for and in-field mobile command center farmers can to control unmanned vehicles in comfort similar to that afforded air-conditioned tractor cabs today.

Harbourt envisions progressive roles for companies that include Syngenta, Corteva and Bayer. Because there is not a lot of new technology in weed control, for example, he sees the companies putting together packages for growers that would include seed and chemicals controls and offer a guarantee as a risk balancer. For example, a farmer buying a particular package might be guaranteed 200 bushel per acre corn, or another package 180 bu./acre with different soil conditions.

Guarantees might be a good thing with the outlook agriculture economist Gary Schnitkey presented. He told farmers this year looks like it will be a profitable year for central Illinois corn and soybean farmers, but 2019 not so much.

“2018 might be much better than we expected,” he said.

The combination of exceptional yields, payments from the USDA aid plan for trade disruptions, and lower net input costs could make it a good year. Projections for average corn yields in central Illinois are 233 bushels per acre — a record — and 73 bu./acre soybeans, which are well ahead of yield trends.

Fertilizer leads the way in lower input costs this year, he said. But it looks like in 2019, input costs may be higher, market assistance won’t be available and yields may not be as exceptional.

Schnitkey projected the operator and farm return for half corn and half soybeans this year to be $302 per acre, with a cash rent of about $264 per acre, giving a farmer a $38 per acre return.

“Save it because 2019 doesn’t look so good,” he said. Projections for next year are for a loss of $14 per acre for the farm.

To prepare for potential tough sledding next year, Schnitkey recommends trying to negotiate lower cash rent if possible and taking any actions that could improve cash flow next year. He said the outlook for 2019 could improve if trade issues resolve, leading to higher commodity prices, and yields are exceptional again.

Harbourt sees a future opportunity for those who can “de-risk” agriculture.

Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.